An aerial view of the Klamath ferry in the Port of Stockton. (Photo courtesy of Roger Cain)

The Bay Area Council plans to leave its longstanding headquarters in a downtown San Francisco office building and move into a historic ferry boat on the bay.

The 300-member council, the nine-county region’s largest and most influential business advocacy group, is acquiring the 95-year-old Klamath ferry boat, which is currently moored in the Port of Stockton.

The BAC has a contract to purchase the boat from its current owner, Duraflame Inc., which has used the boat as a corporate headquarters since 1992.

Word of the move comes just as the Bay Area Council’s chief executive officer, Jim Wunderman, has been named by Gov. Gavin Newsom to serve as chair of the Water Emergency Transportation Authority.

That agency oversees San Francisco’s ferry boat operations, which currently runs boats between the city and Richmond, Vallejo, Oakland, Alameda and South San Francisco. Wunderman was appointed to the WETA board by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, and has been an outspoken advocate for expanded water transit service.

Plans call for the BAC to move its staff from the Sacramento Street offices it has occupied for the past seven years. John Grubb, chief operating officer for the council, said the boat will not only serve as the BAC’s new headquarters, it will also have significant space open to the public, including a large conference center. 

Grubb said he hopes the boat will be ready for occupancy in San Francisco by August. Although a final location on the bay has yet to be established, Grubb said the most likely spot for the Klamath is the south side of Pier 9, adjacent to WETA’s offices. That site will make it easy for Wunderman to move between his BAC workplace and the ferry agency, but BAC staffers stress that the two organizations will retain discrete identities.

“We’ll be next to WETA, but we’ll be separate from it,” Grubb said.

The decision by the 70-year-old Bay Area Council to relocate onto the water is a reflection of maritime transit’s burgeoning popularity in the region. Two large ferry agencies — WETA and Golden Gate Transit — as well as private operators are all adding boats, terminals and new runs, primarily in the north and central bay, while cities on the Peninsula and in the Delta are clamoring to be included in the service. 

John Grubb, chief operating officer for the Bay Area Council.

“The Bay Area Council is a big champion of ferry boats,” Grubb said. 

Built for the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1924, the Klamath operated during a golden era for regional ferry service; between 1850 and 1939, 120 ferry boats operated on San Francisco Bay.

Constructed at Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation’s Union Yard in San Francisco, the boat was named for Klamath County, Oregon, and carried as many as 1,000 people and 78 cars. 

The Klamath ran between Oakland and San Francisco’s Ferry Building until 1929 and between Sausalito and San Francisco’s Hyde Street Pier from 1929 to 1938. When construction of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges sent ferry traffic into a rapid decline, the boat was sold to the Richmond-San Rafael Ferry Company and operated between Point Molate and San Quentin until the arrival of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge — ironically, a pet project of the Bay Area Council at the time — which put an end to its role as a passenger vessel in 1956.

After several years of sitting unused in the Oakland Estuary, the Klamath was acquired in 1964 by Landor Associates, the famous design firm. Landor refurbished the boat and parked it at the old Pier 5, where it served as the firm’s headquarters. It was on the Klamath that some of the world’s most famous logos were created, including those for British Airways, Coca-Cola, FedEx and Levi’s. And the boat also became a gathering place for artists, musicians, actors and writers, among them Andy Warhol, Tom Wolfe and Marshall McLuhan.

“It was not just a business place,” Grubb said. “It was a cultural hub.”

Grubb added that he has been struck by the number of people he meets who remember being on the boat at Pier 5. But in the early 1990s, Landor decided that it had outgrown the Klamath, so the boat was sold to Duraflame, which moved it to a deepwater port in Stockton.

In preparation for the current acquisition, Grubb said the BAC has had discussions with the Port of San Francisco, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, city Supervisor Aaron Peskin and others.

“We’ve had very favorable feedback,” Grubb said. “There is a lot of excitement about this.”

“The Bay is an extremely valuable resource,” added Rufus Jeffris, senior vice president for communications at the BAC. “We want to ensure its protection from an environmental standpoint, but it also offers a tremendous opportunity for expanded transportation.”

Grubb said the boat is currently in reasonably good shape, but will be refurbished prior to assuming its new role.

“It still needs to be dry-hauled, sandblasted and painted, and the interior needs to be brought up to modern San Francisco standards,” Grubb said, putting the cost of refurbishing the boat in the millions of dollars.

Well worth it, he added. 

“To create a gathering spot like this and preserve part of our history is really important,” he said.